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Bus lapses mount, but scrutiny lags

Carriers amass violations, continue operating for years without full safety reviews by strained federal agency

Calvin Butner (right) of the Massachusetts State Police stood by during a random inspection at South Station.

Matthew J. Lee/Globe Staff

Calvin Butner (right) of the Massachusetts State Police stood by during a random inspection at South Station.

Three Crystal Transport bus drivers failed drug tests but kept transporting thousands of passengers around Boston every day, according to federal investigators. Some new hires did not undergo proper drug screening; others falsified duty records to hide the fact that they exceeded the maximum hours allowed behind the wheel.

The violations piled up for five years before federal regulators in February conducted a full safety review of the Boston company — and quickly pulled its buses off the road. Crystal has since been reauthorized to operate here.

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Crystal Transport Inc. is just one example of the many bus companies with persistent safety violations that have been allowed to continue operating, a Globe analysis of federal data found.

Led by discount carriers that offer cheap tickets and free Wi-Fi, buses represent the fastest-growing segment of interstate travel, but regulation of the industry has lagged.

One in four of the more than 3,700 commercial motorcoach and passenger van companies regulated by the federal government has never received the full safety evaluation that turned up long-running problems at Crystal, according to the Globe’s investigation. Nearly half have not been reviewed in more than two years.

“The system is so stretched out it’s hard for them to keep tabs on companies,” said Brian Antolin, a Philadelphia transportation consultant.

The Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration, which oversees the industry, works with State Police and other authorities to conduct random inspections at bus stations and parking lots. It uses that inspection data to prioritize carriers for interventions, including warning letters or increased inspections, before conducting full safety reviews at company headquarters. Each carrier is then given a safety rating: satisfactory, conditional, or unsatisfactory, the last of which pulls the carrier off the road.

‘They need to crack down before crashes occur, not just after high visibility events.’

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The agency said new companies and those with clean safety records account for some of the companies that have never had a full compliance review, and noted that more than half have undergone a new-entrant safety audit.

The motorcoach industry carries about 700 million people a year in the United States, compared with 824 million airline passengers. But buses receive far less scrutiny than planes, despite a record that is far more deadly. More than 170 people were killed in bus crashes from 2010 to early 2014, while no one died in commercial plane crashes on US carriers during that period.

Following a decade of lax oversight, insufficient authority, and inadequate funding, recent rule changes have brought more attention to the industry. Full safety reviews are now required every two or three years, and a nationwide crackdown last year put 110 companies out of service, including Boston’s Fung Wah and Lucky Star.

But federal regulators are still playing catch-up, the Globe’s analysis found. More than 200 companies with at least one safety alert for serious violations uncovered by local authorities have not undergone a complete federal safety review in at least two years — if ever.

More than 500 interstate carriers on the road today exceed the acceptable threshold of violations in at least one of five public safety categories established by federal regulators, according to the Globe’s analysis.

Among them is Turimex LLC, of Laredo, Texas, which racked up more than 1,700 vehicle maintenance violations over the past two years for such problems as faulty brakes, cracked or loose frames, improper wiring, bald tires, and numerous other issues with its fleet of 85 buses. During the same time period, the carrier has also been cited more than three dozen times for using non-English-speaking drivers.

Despite that track record, it hasn’t had a full safety investigation since 2012.

Federal regulators say that since the company crosses the US border, it is subject to more inspections, increasing the chances for violations to be found. Turimex officials did not respond to requests for comment.

The National Transportation Safety Board, which investigates plane, train, and bus crashes, has sharply criticized the lack of oversight of the interstate bus system. At the end of last year, NTSB officials slammed the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration for failing to notice or act on red flags that were apparent before fatal bus accidents.

“They need to crack down before crashes occur, not just after high visibility events,” then-chairman Deborah Hersman said in a statement. “In many cases, the poor performing company was on FMCSA’s radar for violations, but was allowed to continue operating and was not scrutinized closely until they had deadly crashes.”

The Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration, once a division of the Federal Highway Administration, was established as a separate agency within the Department of Transportation in 2000. The number of buses on the road has increased significantly since 2006, more than doubling the number of miles traveled each year, according to the FMCSA. But the number of investigators at the $572 million agency has remained essentially unchanged.

Between 300 and 350 investigators are responsible for overseeing 525,000 bus and truck companies. The agency has asked Congress to authorize 100 new inspectors to focus exclusively on bus companies.

Anne Ferro, head of the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration, said her agency has tried to make the most of limited budgets. In 2010, the agency began publishing the safety records of bus companies on its website and provides a free app to access those records from mobile devices.

It is also examining its rules and data to create stricter safety policies, Ferro said — including clamping down on repeat offenders and shuttered carriers that try to reopen under a different name and proposing a shift to electronic log books. Starting in late 2016, new buses must be have seat belts.

But Ferro conceded her agency has neither the money nor the manpower to adequately monitor the sprawling interstate bus system. Some carriers have been known to hide buses in need of repair from investigators.

“We are not resourced for the kind of passenger carrier oversight system the public expects and we feel government should be providing,” Ferro said. “We are resourced for what we’ve always done all along.”

The growth of discount carriers such as Fung Wah — also known as “curbside” carriers because they often pick up passengers on the street — has introduced more risk to interstate bus service in recent years, according to a 2011 study by the National Transportation Safety Board. These companies often have no formal driver training or safety programs, lack stations where random inspections can take place, and tend to have drivers with poor English skills, the study found.

As a result, curbside carriers have higher rates of death and injury than conventional bus companies and charter services. Curbside carriers had 1.4 fatal accidents per 100 vehicles between 2005 and 2011, according to the study, compared with 0.2 for conventional carriers.

Overall, nearly 1,100 bus companies have been involved in more than 7,500 crashes in the past four years, killing 171 people and injuring 9,414.

In the predawn hours of March 12, 2011, a World Wide Travel bus carrying 32 passengers from Mohegan Sun casino to New York hit a guardrail, flipped on its side, and hit a highway signpost that tore the roof off the coach, killing 15 and injuring 17. The National Transportation Safety Board found that the driver was speeding and had “cumulative sleep debt,”duein part to his work schedule, according to an NTSB report.

The FMCSA ordered the company off the road soon after the crash, though many of its employees continued to work for a sister company, according to the report.

In December 2012, a Mi Joo Tour & Travel motorcoach near Pendleton, Ore., hit a patch of ice, tumbled down an embankment and overturned, killing nine passengers. A few months later, seven riders were killed when a Scapadas Magicas driver lost control going down a hill in San Bernardino, Calif.; despite being flagged for vehicle maintenance issues, the carrier had earned a “satisfactory” rating a month before the fatal crash. Both companies were immediately shut down.

The FMCSA has stepped up its enforcement in the last two years after receiving expanded powers from Congress. Following the crash in California, the agency launched “Operation Quick Strike,” an eight-month crackdown on high-risk carriers conducted by a team of specially trained investigators. Instead of simply going over a company’s paperwork, investigators started interviewing drivers and mechanics and checking tollbooth records.

These more stringent efforts led to the shutdown of scores of companies, including Lucky Star, another Boston discount carrier. Lucky Star started running again in November after spending millions to upgrade equipment, driver training, and saftey procedures.

In all last year, the FMCSA shut down five times the number of bus companies it did in 2010.

Before the recent push for more in-depth safety reviews, however, federal investigations weren’t always effective.

In February 2013, investigators gave Fung Wah a “satisfactory” rating — despite multiple cases of buses catching fire, crashing, and losing their back wheels over the years.

Just a few weeks later, state inspectors found cracks in the frames of nearly all of Fung Wah’s fleet, prompting federal regulators to shut down the company.

The carrier’s efforts to resume operations were rejected earlier this year, and Fung Wah is appealing the decision.

Crystal Transport, which described its problems as largely administrative, is awaiting approval for interstate routes. It has not yet regained its main route between the JFK/UMass MBTA station and the University of Massachusetts Boston.

Federal authorities were much less aggressive in years past, said Craig Lentzsch, former chief executive of Greyhound Lines Inc. Lentzsch was so concerned about the government’s inaction during his tenure from 1994 to 2003 that he had employees follow drivers from other carriers and report speeding and hours-of-service violations to the government.

But the agency failed to follow up, Lenztsch said.

“The guys that are being shut down are guys that we as an industry complained about as long as 12 to 15 years ago,” said Lentzsch, who is now chairman of the charter bus company All Aboard America Holdings.

Dallas-based Greyhound, the nation’s biggest commercial passenger carrier, operating more than 1,300 buses, including BoltBus and Yo Bus, has no federal safety alerts.

The company, which hasn’t had a full safety review in more than four years, was involved in at least 123 accidents in the past two years, involving four fatalities and 63 injuries.

Springfield-based Peter Pan Bus Lines, which operates 111 buses around New England, including hourly trips between Boston and New York, has one alert in the unsafe driving category. Peter Pan drivers were pulled over for speeding 27 times in the past two years, and cited for failing to obey a traffic control device such as a stop light or construction sign and for using a cellphone behind the wheel.

Before the company underwent a compliance review at the end of August, it had not had a full safety audit since 2007; the most recent one before that was in 1995.

Christopher Crean, vice president of safety and security for Peter Pan, said the federal safety database that lists violations can be misleading. Almost all of the company’s speeding violations were on stretches of Interstate where the speed limit had recently dropped, he said, and most of the drivers were given warnings. Only two of the company’s 11 crashes in the past two years, none of which had fatalities, were the driver’s fault, he noted.

The Massachusetts Department of Public Utilities, which does roadside inspections of the state’s 300 bus companies, just started conducting its own safety reviews to assess a motorcoach’s entire operation, instead of simply inspecting drivers and equipment. This review, which carries no penalties, is designed to catch problems that could get the carrier shut down by federal investigators — a development welcomed by Chris Anzuoni, vice president of Plymouth & Brockton Street Railway Co. The Plymouth company, which serves Logan Airport, Boston, and Cape Cod and has no safety alerts, has not had a federal compliance review in five years.

Increasing the frequency of compliance reviews is included in rules recently adopted by the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration to improve safety. In the past, there was no regular schedule for these reviews; they were prompted solely by crashes, passenger complaints, and poor scores from random inspections.

International Stage Lines, a Canadian charter carrier that serves the Pacific Northwest, went 20 years without a full review before one was conducted in February — despite racking up violations for drivers putting in too many hours without a break and not properly tracking hours, according to FMCSA online safety records. That February review, the first in two decades, turned up safety breaches in the company’s drug- screening program.

The February investigation also turned up failures to perform enough drug tests and to wait for drivers’ pre-employment screenings to be completed.

“It’s all been addressed,” said International Stage Lines operations manager Heather Leslie.

Super Duck Tours LLC, the Boston company that operates Upper Deck Trolley Tours and gives Super Duck Tours on amphibious vehicles, was operating for seven years before receiving its very first compliance review in January. The review found several drivers who had not had proper background checks or drug tests — and gave the company a “conditional” rating.

Manager Jack Harte said the problems were procedural and have been fixed.

“Nobody ever checked before,” he said. “We believed we were doing everything the way we should have.”

Under the new rules, bus company owners will soon have to take an exam on safety management practices before they are allowed to operate and must pass a safety audit within 120 days of being authorized. New companies must receive a comprehensive safety review within two years of beginning operations, and every three years thereafter.

“It’s a new day, folks,” Ferro said. “You cannot get away with what you might have been able to get away with before.”

With its crackdown on bus safety violations and more than 250 carriers pulled off the road since 2011, the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration’s recent efforts are helping clean up the industry, transportation specialists say, but many observers say there’s still a long way to go.

“It’s better than what they were doing 10 years ago; they weren’t doing anything 10 years ago,” said Henry Jasny, vice president of Advocates for Highway and Auto Safety, an alliance of consumer, safety, and insurance groups.

“The current administration is doing more, but it’s not enough.”

More coverage:

Photos: Fung Wah’s history of problems

Lucky Star buses back on the road after being ordered off

Crystal Transport back on the road in Mass.

Crystal bus line is cited by US

Katie Johnston can be reached at kjohnston@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @ktkjohnston.
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